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Race in Wrongful Conviction: Are Minorities More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted?

Of course, it is incredibly important to talk about race when we are talking about wrongful convictions. Considering our country as a long history of racism, it is important to examine how that racism takes form in our criminal justice system. As of August 8, 2022, the National Registry of Exonerations listed 3,200 defendants who were convicted of crimes in the United States and later exonerated because they were innocent;1 53% of them were Black, nearly four times their proportion of the population, which is now about 13.6%. Similarly, Latinos and Native Americans are also overrepresented among the wrongfully convicted, indicating a deeply entrenched bias within the criminal justice system.


The racial disparities in wrongful convictions are even more pronounced in death penalty cases. A study by the Death Penalty Information Center found that more than 50% of all death row exonerations involve African Americans. Moreover, cases where a white victim and a black defendant are involved are much more likely to result in a death sentence, underscoring the disturbing influence of race on capital punishment outcomes.


Implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes individuals hold towards certain racial or ethnic groups, significantly affects policing and arrest practices. Research by the Stanford Open Policing Project revealed that police officers are more likely to stop and search individuals from minority backgrounds during traffic stops. This increased scrutiny often results in a higher number of wrongful convictions among people of color.



Eyewitness misidentification is a leading cause of wrongful convictions, and race plays a crucial role in this phenomenon. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that white eyewitnesses are more prone to misidentifying individuals of other races, especially African American and Latino individuals. This disparity in misidentification further contributes to the disproportionate number of wrongful convictions among minority communities.


Race can also affect the quality of legal representation individuals receive during criminal trials. A report by the American Bar Association found that minority defendants are more likely to be assigned public defenders with heavy caseloads and limited resources. This disparity in legal representation leads to a higher risk of wrongful convictions among defendants from marginalized racial backgrounds.


Prosecutors wield significant discretion in determining charges and plea bargains, which can result in race-based disparities in case outcomes. A study published in the Journal of Law and Economics found that prosecutors are more likely to charge African American and Latino defendants with more serious offenses compared to white defendants facing similar circumstances. This discrepancy in charging decisions contributes to the overrepresentation of minorities among the wrongfully convicted.


The statistics speak volumes: race plays an undeniable and troubling role in wrongful convictions. From policing and arrest practices influenced by implicit bias to the disproportionate impact of the death penalty on minority communities, the criminal justice system's racial disparities are deeply concerning. To address this grave injustice, comprehensive reforms are essential, including implicit bias training for law enforcement, improvements in eyewitness identification procedures, and ensuring equitable legal representation for all defendants. By acknowledging and confronting these disparities head-on, we can pave the way for a fairer and more just criminal justice system, one that truly protects the innocent, regardless of their race or ethnicity.



There is also an interesting New York Times article about how black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted, which I recommend reading: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/us/wrongful-convictions-race-exoneration.html


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